Before Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” there was Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart.”
Kushner wrote significantly about the AIDS epidemic in his Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning two-play masterwork (1991-92), but New York activist Larry Kramer preceded his fellow Jewish gay dramatist in 1985 with his semi-autobiographical story that movingly awakened both straight and gay Americans to the need for an all-out fight against the epidemic.
Kramer’s powerful call for courage and solidarity against homophobia and governmental apathy brought its enduring immediacy to Broadway in 2011 with a blistering production that rightly won the best revival Tony. Now the New Repertory Theatre – making a very welcome return to the Mosesian Center for the Arts Black Box Theater in Watertown – is tapping into “The Normal Heart’s” fire and feeling in a very timely stand for love and caring in the face of spiraling hate.
Do not be fooled by the disarming set in the Black Box. Designer Melody Hsu has given the New York City-based play a spare design, with newspapers spread around this intimate space and furniture carried in and out as scenes change. The effect is cleverly three-fold. The newspapers tie in with the initial lack or slowness of coverage of the epidemic by such major outlets as the New York Times and the Washington Post. At the same time, key characters – Kramer’s Jewish alter ego Ned Weeks and his soon-to-be boyfriend Felix Turner – write for newspapers, Weeks for a local called The Native and Turner for the Times itself (on fashion).
All through the 2½-hour play, the deliberately spare design adds to the revival’s focus on Weeks’ relentless activism, his disagreements with caring but conflicted straight brother Ben as well as fellow activists, and his deepening relationship with Turner – notwithstanding the latter’s intensifying battle with AIDS.
Most of all, Kramer’s remarkable play is as candid as Weeks himself. As with the playwright, he eventually alienates fellow activists in his Gay Men’s Health Crisis Group, as well as the unnamed President of the United States and the unseen mayor (the former Reagan and the latter Koch, who concealed his homosexuality until his death). Despite his unwillingness to temper his tone and approach, Weeks does find an unflinching ally in AIDS-investigating Dr. Emma Brookner (wheelchair-bound from polio before the vaccine) – who shares his view that gay men must disavow promiscuity.
Make no mistake, though. “The Normal Heart” is never preachy or didactic. This is a dramatically rich play with several important themes: the AIDS crisis, human caring, sibling ties, sexual identity, homophobia, and the nature of love.
Under Shira Helena Gitlin’s taut direction, the New Rep cast brings forceful expression to all of these themes. Dylan C. Wack has all of Ned’s outspokenness and honesty – especially as he makes a controversial yet very thoughtful analogy between the apathy of many American Jews and government leaders about saving European Jews from the Holocaust, and the same response from political leaders and closeted gays in dealing with AIDS. Wack is commanding and touching. So it goes for Chingwe Padraig Sullivan, who captures Turner’s style, wit, and vulnerability. Wack and Turner are rivetingly convincing as their love grows.
Luis Negron artfully evokes Ben’s growing understanding with his brother. Brian Demar Jones captures conservative Citibank vice president Bruce Niles’ inner conflict about Ned’s methods as an activist and the soundness of his ideas. Zach Kelley catches Southern newcomer Tommy’s understated insights at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis group. Caitlin Doran finds all of Brookner’s spitfire energy and growing frustration as she treats AIDS-stricken patients and decries fellow doctors’ apathy. Will McGarrahan is a standout, raging as Jewish health worker Mickey Marcus about the cruelty with which his dying partner was treated. Michael Clark Wonson’s nuanced lighting complements the characters’ changing fortunes.
In a forward to a 2000 edition of “The Normal Heart” and “The Destiny of Me” (1992 sequel), Kushner declares, “Here is theater that has managed to matter, the work of a deep-diving heart as hot as the sun.” New Rep’s torrid revival of “The Normal Heart” matters as much as Kramer’s pioneering play.
“The Normal Heart” runs through July 9 at the New Repertory Theater in Watertown. For tickets, visit mosesianarts.org or call 617-923-8487.